By Team

CAPE CANAVERAL (CBSMiami) — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered away from Cape Canaveral  Thursday, heading toward the International Space Station carrying more than 7,000 pounds of supplies, science gear and other hardware, including the first two of six new roll-out solar wings to boost the lab’s power.

Astronauts will conduct two spacewalks later this month to help install the two roll-out panels alongside solar wings that have been in continuous operation for 20 years.

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The new arrays will augment the eight larger wings that are part of the station’s original equipment, making up for age-related degradation. Once all six new arrays are installed in a $103 million upgrade, overall power generation will be boosted 20 to 30 percent, roughly matching the output of the original arrays when they were new.

“The new solar arrays … allow us to continue the science and research programs we have on board,” said Joel Montalbano, space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The brand-new Dragon cargo capsule is also carrying thousands of tiny sea creatures. There are 20,000 tardigrades, better known as water bears, and 128 bobtail squid, as well as chili pepper plants and cotton seedlings.

Tardigrades can survive in drastic environments on Earth and even in the vacuum of space. Launched frozen, these microscopic extremophiles will be thawed and revived aboard the space station. By identifying the genes behind the animals’ adaptability, scientists hope to better understand the stresses on the human body during long space stays.

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The baby bobtail squid are part of a study investigating the relationship between beneficial bacteria and their animal hosts.

The cargo also contains samples of saliva and oral bacteria from dental patients that will be treated with toothpaste and mouthwash in an experiment aimed at keeping astronauts’ teeth and gums healthy in space.

There are fresh apples, oranges, cherry tomatoes, onions, lemons, peppers, and avocados, along with coffee, tea, and other menu items.

If all goes well, the spacecraft will fly itself to a docking at the station’s forward Harmony module early Saturday.

This is SpaceX’s 22nd station supply run for NASA. The space agency turned to private companies to transport cargo and astronauts following the shuttles’ retirement a decade ago.

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(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.) Team